The Sino-Indian Connection

A comprehensive overview of the foreign policy dynamics between India and China.


Early Relationship


The start of what might be construed as a relationship between India and China began in 1950 when India was among the first countries to end formal ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of Mainland China. India was the first non-communist country to extend said recognition.


Mao says there was no need for India and China to ‘quarrel’, which has Nehru responding: ‘Sometimes we have differences, but we do not quarrel’.” The picture shows Mao Zedong and Nehru at a reception organised by the Indian Embassy in Peking in 1954. | Photo Credit: XINHUA NEWS AGENCY.


Soon after, Mao saw Indian concern over Tibet as a manifestation of interference in the internal affairs of the PRC. To avoid antagonizing the PRC, Nehru informed Chinese leaders that India had no political ambitions, territorial ambitions, nor did it seek special privileges in Tibet, but that traditional trading rights must continue. These rights mainly constituted the sale of tea and silk between Indian and China and took active stances against the sale of opium.

Nehru sought to initiate a more direct dialogue between the peoples of China and India in culture and literature. To Nehru, it was clear that great powers had to be accommodated and not vilified since the latter action could make them unpredictable and dangerous. Nehru was clear that the PRC was not an ordinary power. In 1950, he had stated in the Indian parliament: “Can anyone deny China at the present moment the right of a Great Power from the point of view of strength and power?…she is a Great Power, regardless of whether you like or dislike it.”

Consequently, up until 1959, despite border skirmishes, Chinese leaders amicably had assured India that there was no territorial controversy. In January 1959, PRC premier Zhou Enlai wrote to Nehru, pointing out that no government in China had accepted as legal the McMahon Line, which in the 1914 Simla Convention defined the eastern section of the border between India and Tibet. Further straining of a nascent amicable relationship was caused when in March 1959, the Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people, sought sanctuary in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. Thousands of Tibetan refugees settled in northwestern India.

The next escalation came as the PRC accused India of expansionism and imperialism in Tibet and throughout the Himalayan region. China claimed 104,000 km² of territory over which India's maps showed clear sovereignty, and demanded "rectification" of the entire border.


Sino-Indian War (1962)


With the independence of the Republic of India and the formation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the year 1949, one of the policies for the Indian government was that of maintaining cordial relations with China. India was so concerned about its relations with China that it did not even attend a conference for the conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan because China was not invited.

In 1954, China and India concluded the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, under which, India acknowledged Chinese rule in Tibet. In July 1954, Nehru wrote a memo directing a revision in the maps of India to show definite boundaries on all frontiers; however, Chinese maps showed some 120,000 square kilometres of Indian territory as Chinese. On being questioned, Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, responded that there were errors in the maps.


Zhou Enlai at a CPC meeting


Top People's Republic of China leader, Mao Zedong felt humiliated by the reception Dalai Lama obtained in India when he fled there in March 1959. Tensions increased between the two nations when Mao stated that the Lhasa rebellion in Tibet was caused by Indians and China started viewing India as a threat to its rule over Tibet.


Sino-Indian War (1962) - Source: India Today


At the time of Sino-Indian border conflict, India's Communist Party was accused by the Indian government as being pro-PRC, and a large number of its political leaders were jailed. CPI(M) due largely to the continued adherence of the CPI to the USSR and the adherence of the dissidents who formed the CPI(M) to the People's Republic of China. The CPI(M) was formed at the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of India held in Calcutta from 31 October to 7 November 1964. CPI(M) held some contacts with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for some time after the split but did not fully embrace the political line of Mao Zedong.



The founding members of the CPI(M)


Relations between the PRC and India deteriorated during the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s Between 1967 and 1971, an all-weather road was built across territory claimed by India, linking PRC's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region With Pakistan; India could do no more than protest, through the Karakoram tract.

The PRC continued an active propaganda campaign against India and supplied ideological, financial, and other assistance to dissident groups, especially to tribes in northeastern India. The Indian government was unable to integrate the tribals of North-East to the mainland and the conditions of the farmers near West Bengal, Orissa was in a bad state and the Indian government couldn't do much about the issue. China supported Naga and Mizo immigrants and used their propaganda to influence these people to use Mao's way of revolution which led to the Naxalbari movement.


De-escalation efforts- The Colombo Conference


Sri Lanka played the role of chief negotiator for the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Indian territory. Both countries agreed to Colombo's proposals.

The interest for Colombo in playing the role of negotiator between India and China was to ensure full-scale war did not break out between the two countries. India had received backing from both the US and UK and Nehru was firm in his stance of fighting the Chinese till the end. For a nation that depended on both India and China for trade, it was in the interest of Sri Lanka to keep this situation from escalating.

The non-aligned nations remained non-aligned, on the basis that if they were to mediate they could not take sides in the dispute. Six of the non-aligned nations — Egypt, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and Indonesia, selected on the basis that they were all acceptable to India and China - met in Colombo on 10 December 1962.

The conference considers the existing de-facto ceasefire, a good starting point for a peaceful settlement of the India-China conflict.

  1. Concerning the ‘Western Sector’, the conference would like to appeal to the Chinese Government to carry out the 20-kilometre withdrawal of its military posts from the LOAC as of 7 November 1959, as defined in maps III and V circulated by China.

  2. The existing military posts which the forces of the Government of India will keep will be on, and up to, the line as of 7 November 1959. The demilitarized zone of 20 km created by Chinese Military withdrawals will be administered by civilian posts of ‘both sides’.

  3. Concerning the ‘Eastern Sector’, the Indian Forces can move up to the South of the McMahon Line, except in two areas, namely, Che Dong (Dhola), Thagla Ridge and Longju, over which there is a difference of opinion between India and China.

  4. In the ‘Middle Sector,’ the status quo should be maintained.

Although the mediation effort was encouraged, the failure of these six nations unequivocally to condemn China is said to have deeply disappointed India. India accepted the proposals in toto while China accepted them in principle as the basis to start negotiations. The final agreement was signed in Shimla confirming that the border was, in fact, the British set McMahon line.

Soon after the Colombo proposals were first formulated, the criticism was made that the proposals favoured China. So much so that the Indian press, as well as the local press, spared no efforts in decrying the efforts of the Colombo powers. Later on, after the Indian Government had decided to accept the Colombo Conference proposals, the press reactions were that the Colombo Conference Powers had given inconsistent interpretations in Peking and New Delhi.

The Chinese Government expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries had gone beyond the positions of mediators and would be functioning as arbitrators or judges if the Chinese Government was called upon to accept the proposals in toto as a pre-condition for direct negotiations between India and China.

While India accepted the proposals in toto, China said it agreed ‘in principle’ but not in toto. In its reaction dated 6 January 1963, China said: “Since the conflict occurred in both the Eastern and Western Sectors, the same principle of withdrawal should apply to all sectors. In no case should one side be called upon to withdraw, and the other side allowed to advance. If there should be disengagement, this should be done all along the entire Sino-Indian Boundary and not just in one of the sectors.” The Colombo proposals had allowed India to advance up to the McMahon Line, which China had dubbed as an ‘illegal’ border.

However, China unilaterally made a concession. It said it would withdraw from Che Dong (Dhola), Longju, and Wuji. It would set up only seven civilian posts in Ladakh. But there was a condition – India should not set up any military or civilian posts in the vacated areas.


Nathu La and Cho La Incidents


In late 1967, there were two more conflicts between Indian and Chinese forces at their contested border, in Sikkim. The first conflict was dubbed the "Nathu La incident", and the other the "Cho La Incident".


  1. In September 1967, Chinese and Indian forces clashed at Nathu La. On 11 September, Chinese troops opened fire on a detachment of Indian soldiers tasked with protecting an engineering company that was fencing the North Shoulder of Nathu La. This escalated over the next five days to an exchange of heavy artillery and mortar fire between the Indian and Chinese forces. Sixty-two Indian soldiers were killed, the casualties on the Chinese side, however, were far higher, with some Indian sources claiming a 1:4 ratio.

  2. •Soon afterward, Indian and Chinese forces clashed again in the Chola incident. On 1 October 1967, some Indian and Chinese soldiers argued over the control of a boulder at the Chola outpost in Sikkim (then a protectorate of India), triggering a fight that escalated to a mortar and heavy machine gun duel. On 10 October, both sides again exchanged heavy fire. While Indian forces would sustain eighty-eight troops killed in action with another 163 troops wounded, China would suffer fewer casualties, with 32 killed and 91 wounded in Nathu La, as well as forty in Cho La.

According to independent sources, the Indian forces achieved a "decisive tactical advantage" and defeated the Chinese forces in these clashes. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were said to be destroyed, where the Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces.


Analysis of the Clashes and Aftermath


The competition to control the disputed land in Chumbi valley had played a key role in escalating tensions in these events. These incidents demonstrate the effects of China's "regime insecurity" on the use of force.

Three factors in these clashes emphasized the role of "declining claim strength in China's decision to initiate the use of force" against India.

First is the Indian Army's expansion of size after the 1962 war leading to the strengthening of its borders with China.

  1. Second is the apparent Indian aggression in asserting its claims near the border.

  2. The third is the Chinese perception of Indian actions, that the most unstable period of the Cultural Revolution in China, which coincided with these incidents, was a possible contributing factor. The Chinese leaders possibly magnified the potential threat from India due to the border-tensions and the perceived pressure from India to strengthen its claims across the border and decided that a severe attack was needed.

Sikkim became an Indian state in 1975, after a referendum which resulted in "overwhelming support" for the removal of monarchy and a full merger with India. The Indian annexation of Sikkim was not recognised by China during the time. In 2003, China indirectly recognised Sikkim as an Indian state, on the agreement that India accept the Tibet Autonomous Region as a part of China, though India had already done so back in 1953. This mutual agreement led to a thaw in Sino-Indian relations with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao saying in 2005 that "Sikkim is no longer the problem between China and India.”


Discourse in the 1970s and 1980s


The 1971 Indo-Pak War


The PRC sided with Pakistan in its December 1971 war with India. The Chinese official attitude towards the crisis and the issues arising out of it was made public, for the first time, on 12 April, in a message by Mr. Chou En-lai to President Yahya Khan. A close study of this letter shows the Chinese point of view regarding the crisis, namely:

I.That China considered the "happenings in Pakistan" as "a purely internal affair" to be settled by the Pakistani people without "foreign interference". This adherence to the principle of non-intervention could also be seen in China's protest Note to India of 6 April 1971;

II. That China opposed the separatists as was reflected in the expression: "the unification of Pakistan and the unity of the people of East and West Pakistan are the basic guarantees" for Pakistan's prosperity and strength;

III. That China considered the separatists to be in a minority, "a handful of persons who want to sabotage the unification of Pakistan";

IV. That as regards the means for settling the problem, China's preference for negotiations can be easily discerned in the expression that "through the wise consultation and efforts" of the Government and "leaders of various quarters in Pakistan", the situation would be restored to normal;

V. Taking note of the "gross interference" by India in the affairs of Pakistan, China considered the USSR and the US guilty of collusion with India. In its protest Note of 6 April also China had accused India of flagrantly interfering in the internal affairs of Pakistan;

VI.That China's firm support to Pakistan was assured if "the Indian expansionists dare to launch aggression against Pakistan;"

VII.That the message made no mention of the "refugee" problem as emphasised by India.

During the Indo-Pakistan War, which began on 22 November, when the Indian Army crossed into East Pakistan, China remained in constant contact with the Government of Pakistan, reaffirming its support to Pakistan and denouncing India and the Soviet Union on various occasions, such as the reception on the Albanian Independence Day, that on the Tanzanian National Day, the banquet in honour of the Sudanese delegation and the UN forum. After the outbreak of the war, the Chinese criticism of India and the Soviet Union became sharper. This was because of India's admission of crossing the East Pakistan border for "self-defence" which convinced Peking that India had been the aggressor. China's objection to the Soviet Union's role stemmed not merely from its differences

with Moscow, but also its opposition to the big Powers' interference and diplomatic expansion in Asia. The Soviet Union was, for the first time, singled out as the Power "fanning the flames" in the subcontinent by "supporting and encouraging" Indian "subversive activities" and "military provocation" against Pakistan.

Presumably, one of China's motives, in condemning and "exposing" the Soviet Union in the UN, was to lower Moscow's prestige in the Third World nations who saw a dangerous precedent in the dismemberment of Pakistan.

China's support to Pakistan was not confined to verbal criticism of the Indo-Soviet role but was also practically demonstrated in the UN. China moved a draft resolution (which it later withdrew) which condemned India, asked the warring parties to withdraw their troops and called upon ''all States to support Pakistan" in its struggle to resist "Indian aggression".China voted for the General Assembly resolution of 7 December and the Security Council resolution of 21 December calling for a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops, however, it expressed its dissatisfaction with the resolution that it did not condemn India and support Pakistan against the Indian aggression.11 It expressed its solidarity with Pakistan by strongly opposing the Soviet proposal to invite a "Bangladesh" representative to take part in the UN debate and by vetoing the Soviet resolution that called for a ceasefire without withdrawal. Had China not been a permanent member of the Security Council, the Soviet resolution of 5 December, which secured two affirmative votes of Moscow and Poland with 12 abstentions, would have been passed. Thus China's presence in the UN proved a source of strength for Pakistan.

In China, different groups have advocated different approaches to foreign policy, one favouring rapprochement with the US while the other advocating close relations with the USSR. True, Chairman Mao and Premier Chou have succeeded in maintaining the upper hand, as is indicated by the recent disappearance of Lin Pao and the purge of several Chinese officials on the charges of collusion with the Soviets. However, given the leftists' pressure, who wanted to support the "revolutionaries" in Ceylon and Pakistan, China had to follow a moderate course regarding the Indo-Pakistan War.

Another major deterrent was the fear of Soviet intervention, the possibility of which was apparent from the USSR's warning to other countries to stay out of the conflict, and its assertion that the "Soviet Union cannot remain indifferent to the developments. . . taking place in the direct proximity of the USSR's borders and therefore, involve the interests of its security". That the USSR was prepared to come to India's help, in case China entered into the war, was evident from the reported massing of USSR troops on the Soviet-Afghan border and its promise to India to start a diversionary action in Sinkiang against the Chinese in case latter intervenes in Ladakh. Besides, China had not forgotten the happenings in Czechoslovakia. The presence of 44 Russian divisions along the Chinese border in the north figured prominently in Chinese eyes as did its own relatively weak defence capability.



Frontpage of The Tribune. Picture Courtesy: National Herald In one of the most decisive short wars, India summarily dismantled Pakistan in 13 days





The late 70s and 80s


In 1979, the Indian Minister of External Affairs Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a landmark visit to Beijing, and both countries officially re-established diplomatic relations. India’s stance had been to establish relations with China and not to have hostilities.

In China Deng Xiaoping was in power, In India, it was the Janata Dal ka Government under Morarji Desai, AB Vajpayee was MEA. The PRC modified its pro-Pakistan stand on Kashmir reducing all overt support to claims made by Pakistan and appeared willing to remain silent on India's absorption of Sikkim and its special advisory relationship with Bhutan as the first step to a broadening of relations. This happened as a consequence of the Soviet Union presence in Afghanistan and the breakdown of Sino Soviet Relations at the time. Chinese benefit was that if the Soviet Union was becoming hostile then it couldn't afford tensions with India as well. This change in China’s Kashmir policy was also due to a paradigm shift on its domestic front. China under Deng Xiaoping was keen to jettison Maoist policies of confrontation which, in Deng’s understanding, was contributing nothing to China’s welfare. China thus readjusted its foreign policy and started a process of integrating with the global economy and looking forward to a peaceful and stable environment conducive for its economic growth. The change in China’s Kashmir policy in the 1980s reflected this overall pattern in Chinese foreign policy.

In 1980, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved a plan to upgrade the deployment of forces around the Line of Actual Control. India also undertook infrastructural development in disputed areas which included the building of roads, basic long term permanent infrastructure, and troop fortifications including bunkers.

India and the PRC held eight rounds of border negotiations between December 1981 and November 1987. In 1985 the PRC insisted on mutual concessions without defining the exact terms of its "package proposal" or where the actual line of control lay.